New GM Advice: The Sandbox Game

The sandbox game. In role playing, this evokes the idea that there is no driving plot, but rather the players have the freedom to do what they want, go where they want, and generally have a free hand in the world. 

The problem is, most RPGs are story driven and it can prove to be difficult for a GM to try and create a world on the fly for the players. 

Now, before I get too much farther, this article is probably old news for more experienced GMs out there. This is more for those newer GMs looking to expand how they run their games.

How do you do a sandbox game that has a structured story arc? Multiple choice. 

When I start putting a game together, I try to think of how the world around the players would interact. How do all the political powers interact with each other. What natural or supernatural events will influence what is going on. Now think about how these different forces will play out in the near future and how your players could potentially influence those forces and events.

I typically try to come up with four or five possible avenues the players can choose to go down and briefly sketch out a framework for each choice. I also try to think of how an event will continue to develop if the players don’t choose to follow that lead.

As the game moves on from session to session, I continually update my framework for all the possible avenues, jotting down notes on how an event resolves or worsens while the players tackle the adventure they chose to go down. I also keep on the lookout for new avenues of adventure that come up in the adventure they are on. Does a player do an interlude that sparks an idea you can develope? Write it down and frame it out as a possible adventure.  Do the players take a turn you weren’t expecting, killing an innocent or letting a particularly evil villain go? Write it down and frame it out.

Now, when I say frame it out, I’m not talking about creating a two page adventure. I’m talking about creating a few bullet points of how the adventure could go, reference a few of the antagonists the players could meet. And write down a few twists or complications that could arise. That’s it. Don’t put any more effort into it unless the players decide to go down that particular road.

What this will create is an ever increasing series of possibilities for your players to explore that you already have a starting point that can easily be fleshed out with only a little more effort. 

Here’s an example: 

I recently ran Savage Worlds: Rifts. I had an idea to role play character creation and have the players wind up in Rifts Earth from the modern day world. So the first couple sessions were a bit railroady in that they started off as Freshmen in the East Texas University setting for Savage Worlds. But during the initial adventure, they are whisked away to the post apocalyptic world of Rifts. They had to survive the new world and run away from the aggressive Coalition forces. Then we did a montage of the players each being trained into their iconic frameworks as found in the Savage Worlds Rifts setting. 

Once that was completed, they are sent on their first scouting patrol where they run into some Coalition forces and some demonic entities.

At this point, they had heard stories of:

1> Other ETU students being held by the coalition. 
2> Reports of vampires pushing northeast into eastern Texas. . 
3> A strange powerful slug-like creature with high tech warriors laying waste to towns to the east. 
4> And news of the strange insectoids known as the Xyticix setting up hives in the Iowa region.

For each of these I had an outline for with adversaries and ideas on how to run each one. Each of those four adventure hooks had only about five sentences of information, in bullet point. I had the basic idea, two encounter ideas, the main antagonist idea and one or two twists each. The players went to save the other ETU students. So I fleshed that adventure out, adding more encounters, and using a few interludes to come up with some ideas on how to flesh out the adventure more. The players find the other ETU students in a prison camp about thirty miles West of what was once St Louis. They destroyed the camp and saved nearly a hundred ETu students. 

Now for the other three adventure ideas that they did not choose, the following changes were made: 

Vampires: The vampires have infiltrated Pinebox Tx (The town that the ETU setting is in) and enslaved the population. 

Splugorth: The powerful slug is a Splugorth slaver and has decimated another two towns, cutting off communications to outposts in the far east. 

Xyticix: The insect race has set up a new hive in western Iowa. The Coalition has moved two full battalions of troops to intercept and eliminate this hive before it can become too deeply dug in.

As a result, the vampires are now a more difficult and powerful force to deal with. The Splugorth now have a second slaver in the far eastern region, but the Coalition are less likely to follow after the PCs for destroying one of there prison camps with the Xyticix threat so close to their western border.

I added two more adventure hooks to the mix when they got back to Castle Refuge with the freed students and provided a kind of intel report for them to review the changing situations. They chose to tackle the vampire threat next. So I started to flesh that out quite a bit and advance the other adventure ideas even further. 

This was easy for me to keep track of the changing events as each one has its own page and I just write down the changes. It lets the players have more control in what they do and how they go about it while still giving the GM a structure to rely on so less of the story has to be done on the fly. 

Give it a shot. This method works and is great at keeping the world feeling alive while still keeping it pretty simple for the GM to keep events straight in their campaign. 

Most importantly, 
Have fun!


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